The concierge had warned me not to go out on foot, and as I walked through the landscaped gardens in front of the Sheraton in the middle of Addis Ababa, a grandiose hotel I was told is owned by a wealthy Saudi with an Ethiopian mother, behind high walls that blocked out the city’s people and lower, shanty-style buildings, leaving only the modern towers, the tree tops and the blue sky, I was a little trepidatious. On the one hand, I knew hotel staff over-warn tourists. It may have something to do, consciously or not, with emphasizing their value to you (and sometimes to up-sell you on transportation or guides). On the other, even my Ethiopian friends had told me to be careful, to leave my money, my passport, and certainly my camera at the hotel, and I’d got a list of neighborhoods not to go near under any circumstances. A little shaken, I did some googling, and found reports of popular tourist scams, most beginning with someone friendly approaching you out of nowhere and offering to show you around.
Outside the Sheraton gates, the road was a little ramshackle, with maybe a little more garbage lying around than most places. But it was a bright, warm day, and I was in a new city, in a country I’d wanted to visit for years. I walked over to the Mercato, an old part of town, popular with locals but one of the spots I was specifically warned against. There were plenty of shops, lots of cafes, many with a few tables and chairs out front so you could people watch. An elderly man with a middle-aged woman fell into step with me and asked where I was from. His name was Abraham, he said, and the woman was his daughter, Moona. They were originally from the part of Ethiopia that broke off in the civil strife in the 1990s and became Eritrea, and now lived a two- or three-hour walk outside the Mercato. He told me they sold laminated maps of Ethiopia to make ends meet. I didn’t haggle and bought one for the equivalent of $10. I figured that was that, but we continued to talk, and to walk, and then suggested we have a coffee, which is just how those scams I’d read about tended to go. Thinking I was possibly an idiot, and that I’d definitely not be able to get any sympathy back home for whatever was about to happen to me, I said sure.
There’s a certain kind of danger that attracts travelers — the adventuresome, jumping-off-stuff kind of danger. But there’s another, far more pervasive sort that infects even the most carefree of white-watering, BASE-jumping enthusiast. It’s a perceived danger, a fear you could call xenophobia if you wanted to get people’s backs up, but at its most basic level, it’s the danger tourists perceive in cities and countries they’re not familiar with: the danger of getting your pocket picked, of being ripped off, or the more rarefied, Hostel-inspired fear of getting roofied and robbed by some lunatic Eastern European with a dead eye. In essence, it’s a fear of people.
STILL, BE CAREFUL
There are some genuinely dangerous places that you should either take special care in, or simply not travel there at all. Active war zones are no-brainers. As for other trouble zones, the governments of Canada, the United States and the UK all maintain travel advisory sites. These countries err on the side of caution. A recent travel warning from the US site for Haiti, for instance, mentions that violence may erupt during a series of elections. This is not a reason not to go to Haiti during those elections — just a reason not to go to election rallies while there.
There is also the issue of TWF (Traveling While Female). Sexual and other physical assaults are a greater danger to women than men in a number of places, though once again, read the advisories with an eye for detail. In many places where sexual assault of women is more common, such as India, it is almost exclusively related to local women. This does not make it a good thing, just something tourists may not need to worry about very much. And beware the anecdote. Tourism crashed in Mazatlan several years ago when a woman from Calgary was badly beaten in her hotel. It was horrific, and she barely survived, but it was a one-off, the sort of thing that also happens in the US, Canada, the UK, and everywhere else. A reason to mourn, but not a reason to avoid travel. The Canadian government offers a women’s safety travel guide, and the International Women’s Travel Center has published a 2014 list of the 10 worst places for women travelers.
TWLGBT is an issue that actually has more effect on men and the male-oriented-male-identified than women, at least when it comes to the expression of affection or intimacy. Women are permitted to express affection and closeness in most parts of the world, and are not necessarily read as lesbian unless engaging in openly erotic behavior. Men, however, are at risk in many, perhaps most, parts of the world when expressing anything from tender camaraderie to mild affection and beyond. Outtraveler.com published a list earlier this year of the 10 places gay travelers should never go, but generally, it’s a good idea to simply consult this list of 79 countries that have laws against homosexual behavior and either don’t go there, or consider your behavior carefully when you do.
This fear is fed by a lot of things, which for North Americans includes coming from a place that’s so huge you often have to travel hundreds of miles to get somewhere foreign, but one of the most important contributors is the scary travel story, first cousin of the urban legend. It can be as simple as your friend coming back from Europe and telling you about the time he almost got robbed right in front of St. Peter’s. He felt the guy’s hand reaching for his pocket and was quick enough to swat it away before he got anything. Or there’s the cabbie from the train station in Sofia who ran up the fare by driving in circles. These stories are as old as Baedeker, though their roots go back to the very beginning with stories like Odysseus and his men getting taken advantage of by Circe and her band of manipulative women when they landed at Aeaea. In fact, look at The Odyssey, with Polyphemous and the sirens, Calypso and the cannibals, and you’d be forgiven for thinking that, despite sailing around the Mediterranean in little wooden boats with not even an astrolabe to guide them, that the chief dangers of ancient travel were the foreigners you met.
Those scam stories I’d read before going to Africa run something like this: You, the American tourist, are walking around Addis Ababa minding your own business when one, two or possibly three young men fall into step with you. They chat amicably, pointing out interesting sights as you stroll, and then one of them says there’s a great bar or cafe that you’d love. They all agree it’s one of the best — and so, innocent, naive, trusting, you go along, thinking you’re getting some lovely local color. You sit down, have a drink, and buy a round for your new friends by way of thanks. When the bill comes, it’s $300. You protest, but then a large person from the back comes out and strongly suggests you settle the bill and leave. You’ve been had, your trip ruined, and your faith in humanity shattered. Caveat viator.
The elaborate scam is probably the greatest of this brand of perceived travel dangers. It combines the idea of the innocent abroad with the wily stranger, and sometimes throws in a little anti-Americanism for good measure. They make for good stories, but like most stories, the flow sometimes runs off with the facts.
Take Haiti, for instance. I’ve been twice in the past couple of years, and before I went each time, I got alarmed looks from friends and loved ones. The assumption, not only among worried homebodies, but in the media as well, is that a desperate place like Haiti breeds desperate people. Port au Prince is dangerous by definition. And the slums, like Jalousie? Forget about it. The US per capita income is more than 66 times higher than Haiti’s. This translates to a ratio that goes something like this: In terms of income, the average Haitian is to the average American as the average American is to someone who makes $3.5 million a year. And that’s average. Jalousie’s below average. They’d be fools not to conk you over the head, surely.
The first time I went to Haiti, I had a driver because I didn’t have a driver’s license. As we were driving around the capital, I saw a cluster of colorful houses on a hillside. It was Jalousie. The driver, Maxi, told me the government had recently been painting all the houses pretty colors to combat the idea that it was a bad place. I asked him to drive me up there. He had to drop me at the entrance to it, since it’s a sort of hive of slender footpaths, a little like bits of Cinque Terre. Just where he dropped me, there was a lean-to, a sheet of corrugated aluminum propped up against some salvaged wooden beams where a couple of men were sitting on crates, drinking Prestige, the national beer. I paused briefly to take a look, and one of the drinkers said hi and waved me over. “Sit, sit,” he said in a Creole I was starting to understand, offering up his crate. “Have a beer.”
There are bad people everywhere, and everywhere, they are in the minority, and as far as I’ve been able to tell, poverty doesn’t have much of an effect on the proportions.
There were two types of beer: warm and cold. I took a more expensive cold one, which cost a little less than $1, and gulped it in the afternoon heat and chatted about where I was from, where they were from, how I liked Haiti, whether I’d tried the goat yet. I finished it off, said bye, and walked into Jalousie proper, where I ran smack into a crowd of people: office-working women dressed in bright yellows and reds, a man in a light blue suit with a baby strapped to his chest, a boy in a bright orange and red t-shirt slaloming the crowds with his soccer ball. Everyone was very much about their business, and weren’t paying any attention to me or that big camera people told me I definitely shouldn’t bring. Danger was the farthest thing from my mind, and the beer had only cost a dollar.
On my second trip, I was staying at a hotel downtown, and wanted to take a night-time walk. It was a cheap little place, more locals hanging out than foreign guests, and as I strode past on my way out, the woman at the front desk told me to be careful. “Bad people out at night?” I asked. “Ha. No,” she said with the same sort of amusedly dismissive tone I got any time I implied the possibility of human-based danger here. “Some of the street lights are burnt out, and there are holes in the sidewalks everywhere.”
I’ve been to Kazakhstan and Western Sahara, Bosnia and East Timor, Serbia and Mexico City, and I’ve found the same story everywhere. There are bad people everywhere, and everywhere, they are in the minority, and as far as I’ve been able to tell, poverty doesn’t have much of an effect on the proportions. (The one place I’ve been that was genuinely dangerous, Johannesburg, seemed to be so more as a result of the pervasive brutalism of Apartheid than poverty or even race.) The average Haitian seemed about as interested in clocking me for my money as I have been in rooms of people 10 times wealthier than myself. Exceptions must be made for failed states, like Somalia and parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo, and also for Johannesburg, which is a case all its own. But for the most part, the thing I’ve learned from my travels is: Don’t be afraid of people.
Back in Addis Ababa, Abraham and Moona took me to a place they said made good macchiatos. We sat at one of the outdoor tables and ordered a round. Stories were swapped. It turned out Abraham had worked in shipping, and had once met Aristotle Onassis. He told me he had a picture of them shaking hands at home. He’d been everywhere, seen everything, but ended up back at home, old, with not a lot more than his daughter, and his memories. When the bill came, I took it and reached into my pocket to pay. It was about 35 birr, or roughly $2. But then Moona poked her father and spoke to him in Amharic. “No please,” Abraham translated. “You’re our guest.” I protested once more, and then relented. Moona paid, we got up, said good-bye, and went our separate ways. It was my best afternoon is Addis Ababa, and an afternoon I wouldn’t have had if I’d been scared of people.